Journalists covering the conflict between separatists and government troops in the central African nation of Cameroon are being arrested on the alarming allegation of generating “fake news.”
The latest among them is Mimi Mefo Takambou, an investigative reporter who sought to uncover facts surrounding the killing of American missionary Charles Wesco, who in late October was shot dead 12 days after moving his family from Indiana to Cameroon. Wesco’s death was a particularly explosive development in an ongoing conflict known as the Anglophone crisis, a killing that the Cameroonian government wanted to distance itself from.
After citing social media reports that claimed the Cameroonian military had fired on Wesco, Mefo was accused of publishing fake news online and arrested — even though she also published a statement from the military claiming Wesco had been fatally shot by separatists.
Mefo, who works for Equinoxe TV, is one of more than a dozen journalists who have been jailed or questioned this year in the once-peaceful country that is now embroiled in a civil war in its English-speaking regions. Cameroon is the second-leading jailer of journalists in sub-Saharan Africa after Eritrea, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
Journalists who are attempting to do the work of reporting on the conflict are finding themselves caught in the middle of it.
“We have the impression that if you’re not singing the praises of a particular individual, either the government or the pro-independence fighters, or even the [political] opposition, you are considered as an enemy,” Mefo told The Washington Post. “If I was out to sabotage the military, as they claim, I shouldn’t have given the government’s version of the story.” She was later arrested by military police and charged with publishing false news and cyber-criminality, among other accusations. She was released in November after spending three nights in jail.
In the U.S., media audiences are accustomed to President Donald Trump’s enthusiastic use of the term “fake news,” which he has turned into one of his favorite catchphrases. Picked up elsewhere, including by punitive governments like that in Cameroon, the rhetoric is placing journalists in serious peril.
“Trump’s language is the sort of language that is being echoed everywhere,” says Angela Quintal, the Africa program coordinator at CPJ. “Not only are they echoing it, but journalists are being arrested.”
In Mefo’s case, Cameroonian President Paul Biya intervened and ordered the charges dropped. Although her detention was short, the damage was done, her lawyer Richard Tamfu said. “It’s a really scary situation because most journalists will not want to speak out now. They will not want to go out to those areas to report now,” he said.
“The place of the journalist is not behind bars,” says Mefo. “We are the watchdog of society.”
Read the full story at The Washington Post.